Clarifying Literacy Rates in Detroit

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A persistent datapoint in conversations about Detroit is that nearly ½ of Detroit residents are illiterate. We’ve addressed the problematic methodology of that datapoint before, but we often receive many questions about literacy in the city and Metro Detroit region through AskD3. 

The literacy figure that people cite—47%—is from a single analysis conducted by the National Institute for Literacy in 1998 based on data collected in 1993, nearly 30 years ago. While this data is extremely outdated and doesn’t take into account changes in the landscape over the past 30 years, it was also not very reliable even when it was published. In the National Institute for Literacy’s report, several limitations were documented, the most notable being that the validity was only confirmed at the county-level. Additionally, the report included a note that Detroit’s margin of error was greater than 5 percentage points, but did not include details about the size.  

One way to understand how useful an estimate might be is by comparing the estimate itself to the margin of error reported. This can be done by dividing the margin of error by the estimate.  In this case, the margin of error is at least 5% and the estimate is 47%.  If we divide 5% by 47%, we find that the size of the margin of error exceeds 10% of the estimate (10.6%).

The margin of error exceeding 10% of the estimate is cause for concern and exceeds our own internal mechanism for flagging estimates as potentially inaccurate. If you want to learn more about margins of error, check out this post.

Unfortunately, there is not a very good measure for literacy across the city because the existing data is outdated, new data is expensive to collect, and definitions of literacy vary between projects. Depending on the needs of your project, there are other indicators that we can recommend to help demonstrate the need for literacy programming. 

Third-grade English language arts proficiency, the average SAT score in reading and writing, and college reading readiness are a few indicators that give a more precise indication of literacy levels. We provide links to the Detroit number for these indicators below, but using the State of the Detroit Child, you can access this information for any city, zip code, county, school district, and more in the state.

A very common indicator for literacy is 3rd grade English language arts proficiency. For older students, average SAT score in evidenced based reading and writing as well as the percentage of students who scored a college ready level on the SAT in this subject are useful. These indicators can help direct school-aged programs in a community to areas where literacy programs could have the greatest impacts.

For programs focused on English as a second language families, the percentage of different languages spoken at home can be used as an indicator. This can help understand the predominant language being spoken in the community, the percentage of native English speakers, and where in a community these households are most concentrated.

Explore our State of the Detroit Child tool to find these indicators in your area of interest. If you have other questions about literacy in Detroit or across Michigan, you can always reach out to AskD3.

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